Tag Archives: Yaacov Mutnikas

Jean Paul Desrosiers’ Unfathomable Moroccan Marathons

This is getting ridiculous.

First, “06880” reported on David Friezo’s attempt to raise $500,000 for cancer victims by running a marathon at the North Pole.

Then it was Yaacov Mutnikas, who rowed across the Atlantic Ocean  — and set a world record in the process.

I hope you are sitting down for this next one — though Jean Paul Desrosiers certainly was not.

The owner of Westport’s Sherpa Fitness Center has just returned from Morocco. He competed in the Marathon des Sables — only “the toughest footrace on earth,” according to the Discovery Channel.

Jean Paul Desrosiers marathon des sables

How tough?

Desrosiers ran — no, raced — 156 miles in 5 days. That’s the equivalent of 6 marathons.

He did it across 10-story-high sand dunes, in temperature reaching 130 degrees.

While carrying all his food and a sleeping bag on his back.

I’m exhausted just typing that.

“I’ve always been an outdoor enthusiast,” the 39-year-old Weston resident says. “I like to push boundaries. I believe life happens on the edges of your comfort zone.”

That philosophy has made Sherpa Fitness — on the Post Road, across from Athletic Shoe Factory — a very popular gym (among a certain type of clientele, to be sure). Its tagline is “Move Your Boundaries.”

Jean Paul Desrosiers looks like a normal human being.  But he is not.

Jean Paul Desrosiers looks like a normal human being. But he is not.

It’s also the philosophy that saw Desrosiers through 6 years in the Marine Corps, starting at age 19, and propelled him later into college as an exercise science major, a career as a semi-pro cyclist, and helped him run 4 marathons and 1 ultramarathon.

But the Marathon des Sables is an ultra-uber-unbelievable marathon.

Desrosiers did the entire race on just 17,000 calories. Carrying all his gear, every ounce was important. He used dehydrated food — and then repackaged it in vacuum bags. Shaving a few grams here and there could end up saving a full pound. Running 156 miles over sand, rocks and gravel — there were no asphalt roads — every ounce counts.

Desrosiers did bring 100 salt tablets. They were key to keeping his electrolytes up.  Race organizers provided water — but not a lot. And it wasn’t even quenching. “Hot and dry,” Desrosiers calls it.

He began training in October. But when winter came, the Polar Vortex hit. Not exactly the best way to prepare for a desert that’s 110 in the shade.

So Desrosiers stuffed a backpack with 28 pounds of rock salt, and hit the treadmill. As he got stronger, he ran with the pack on roads.

When the race drew nearer, he turned the heat in a Sherpa room up to 90, added a space heater, and rode a stationary bike for 90 minutes. “It helped, but it wasn’t perfect,” he says.

He also ran on Sherwood Island. The snow helped him practice his footing on difficult terrain.

Jean Paul Desrosiers, pausing very briefly in Morocco.

Jean Paul Desrosiers, pausing very briefly in Morocco.

Once in Africa, reality hit quickly. There was brutal heat, dry air, strong wind, and the biggest dunes Desrosiers had ever seen. And, with 1100 runners in such soft sand, it took a long time to get through.

As difficult as the physical race was — and boy, does it sound daunting — the emotional part was equally tough.

“You can’t prepare fully for the reality of knowing you have to survive with just what you’ve got,” he notes.

Still, he adds, “If I’d never done anything before, I wouldn’t have believed I could do this. You can’t start 12th grade without having gone through 1st grade.”

Desrosiers trusted in his ability to adapt. The human body, he says, is “pretty dynamic.” But the overwhelmingness of new stimuli shattered even some hardened competitors. Day after day, many racers dropped out.

Day after day too, the pack got lighter — and Desorsiers lost weight. But the temperature did not drop. His feet blistered. Fatigue set in.

What kept him moving were emails from home. Each night, race organizers handed printouts to the racers. Knowing people in Westport were thinking of him “made more difference than any food or drink,” Desrosiers says.

He did not expect to win. But each day he finished in the top third. He was sick on Day 4 — the double marathon, or more than 50 miles — but the next day he clocked in at 5:20, good for the top 200.

A scene from the 2013 Marathon des Sables.

A scene from the 2013 Marathon des Sables.

Desrosiers completed the entire 156 miles at #303. “I was surprised,” he says, using the same tone I would to describe a movie that was better than I expected.

The end affected him, though. He’d expended enormous physical and emotional energy. He was exhausted, dehydrated, overheated and blistered. His back was marked, where his pack dug in.

Then Desrosiers crossed the finish line, and it was all over.

No one was there to congratulate him. He ended the race as he’d begun it: alone.

Desrosiers walked to his tent, dropped his gear off, and headed to the medical area to get his feet looked at. Then he returned to the finish line, to watch the others straggle in.

Jean Paul Desrosiers earned this -- the very hard way.

Jean Paul Desrosiers earned this — the very hard way.

When we talked earlier this week, he’d been home only a couple of days. Besides his girlfriend, he had not talked about the experience with anyone.

“You learn a lot about yourself when you’re uncomfortable,” Desrosiers says. “You persevere, you look forward, you’re happy you got through it.

“This is not a carnival. It’s hell.”

Back in Westport, he’s not sure what his next challenge is. Right now, he’s happy to focus on Sherpa.

But, he notes, “I’m fitter, I’m stronger, I’m lighter. Hopefully, I can inspire people to do things they didn’t think they could do.”

Even if they’re not things you or I would have believed were humanly possible.





Yaacov Mutnikas Puts Every Westporter To Shame

If you read the recent “06880” story about David Friezo, the Westport man who will soon run a marathon — at the North Pole — and thought, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard”: Sit down.

Another Westporter — Yaacov Mutnikas — just rowed across the Atlantic Ocean.

He rowed across the Atlantic. From the Canary Islands to Barbados. He and 7 others rowed 2600 nautical miles. In 32 days, 22 hours, 31 minutes and 25 seconds.

Which — hey, why not? — puts them in the Guinness Book of World Records, for fastest 8-man transatlantic crossing ever.

And the 2nd-fastest crossing overall.

Please tell me no other Westporter has done anything crazier.

Yaacov Mutnikas (4th from right) with his record-setting fellow rowers.

Yaacov Mutnikas (4th from right) with his record-setting fellow rowers.

Mutnikas is 59 years old. 59! He has been getting AARP magazine for nearly a decade. 

He was the oldest man — by far — on the boat (the “Toby Wallace”). The youngest was 21. Most others were in their 20s. With age comes — what?

Well, experience.

Mutnikas began rowing when he was 15, in his native Lithuania. (Back when it was part of the Soviet Union.) He moved to Westport 3 years ago, and quickly joined the Saugatuck Rowing Club.

Gliding up and down our little river hardly prepares you to row across the Atlantic. So he added gym work to his usual rowing regimen, of up to 100,000 meters a week.

This is the boat that Yaacov Mutnikas rowed across the Atlantic.

This is the boat that Yaacov Mutnikas rowed across the Atlantic.

This was not Mutnikas’ 1st oceanic row. In January 2009, after 11 days at sea, he and his crew had to be pulled out of the water by a ship. Their boat had broken.

Two years ago, his boat capsized. They were just 100 miles from their goal.

“I don’t give up easy,” he says.

“This time, I did it because I failed last time. The 2nd time, I did it because I failed the 1st time.

“The 1st time, I didn’t know any better.”

The crew at work, in the middle of the Atlantic.

The crew at work, in the middle of the Atlantic.

Mutnikas knows what he did sounds incredible, almost beyond belief, to 99.9999% of the planet. But he is not one for great revelations.

“Once you start, there is no way back,” he says. “So you just keep going.”

The routine is numbing: 2 hours on, 2 hours off. 2 hours on, 2 hours off. Day after day after day.

You row. You rest. You row. You rest.

“It’s psychological warfare,” Mutnikas says. The mental part may be as tough as the physical. The mind has to push the body past everything: injuries. Hallucinations. Even boredom.

Occasionally, Mutnikas could relax: put his headphones on, and listen to classical music. Much more often though, he had to be on high alert. One mistake — especially in rough weather — could mean disaster for all.

And keep in mind: He was not just rowing. He was racing. The 8 men on the Toby Wallace were trying to set a world record.

Mutnikas laughs as he tells the next part: The boat was even racing against itself. Each 4-man crew tried to log more distance than the other.

It’s all part of the joy of transatlantic rowing.

Flares celebrate a triumphant arrival in Barbados.

Flares celebrate a triumphant arrival in Barbados.

Mutnikas got back to Westport last Thursday. He went to bed. Then he got up Friday morning, and went to work.

So what’s next? What do you do once you’ve set a Guinness world record for rowing across a friggin’ ocean?

“I have a couple of ideas,” Mutnikas says. “But I’m not saying. Once you tell, you’re committed.”

A few “06880” readers might say Yaacov Mutnikas should be committed.

Others would say, simply, “Wow.”

Most of us just have no words.